On Scorekeeping in Professional Philosophy, and Other Credit Economies

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 20/03/2020 - 4:09am in

Last week, two events occurred that are emblematic of the repeated structural gaslighting of disabled philosophers in which nondisabled philosophers engage and the continued exclusion of disabled philosophers of disability from the profession that almost all philosophers tacitly enforce and reward. One of these events took place in comments on the Daily Nous blog, involving philosophers who seem largely uninformed about ableism in philosophy and indeed uneducated about how power operates in the profession and society more broadly. The other event was the consequence of an event that I have written about before, namely, the recruitment for a position in Bioethics and Disability Studies in the philosophy department at Georgetown.

In the first case, the philosophers in question depoliticized and individualized a politically saturated situation, namely, the unacknowledged use of the insights of disabled philosophers of disability by nondisabled philosophers, appealing to dismissive remarks about political correctness and unexamined views about personal intentions in order to do so. In the second case, the position was awarded to a nondisabled philosopher even though numerous disabled philosophers of disability applied for the job, many of whom have much more knowledge about and experience of ableism and disability than the nondisabled philosopher who got hired.

Both events became part of the public discourse that circulated in philosophy on social media last week. Yet no nondisabled philosopher came forward to challenge the events and draw attention to the ways in which they reinforced the asymmetries of power that currently condition relations between disabled and nondisabled philosophers. ...

Indeed, my disabled philosopher colleagues and I feel betrayed once again.... betrayed by the philosophical community that continues to exploit and distort disabled people’s experiences and wisdom while denying us the authority and professional acknowledgement of that knowledge..--Shelley Tremain @Biopolitical Philosophy [HT Dailynous]

A tacit assumption, even existential commitment, I have long had is that professional philosophy  is characterized by reasonably accurate scorekeeping. We are a relatively small discipline, with even smaller sub-fields, that generally have overlapping workshops/conferences and referee poules. If anything, I tend to worry that professional philosophy is too clubby. So, a few years ago I was stunned to discover material in a handbook chapter that went over the very same correspondence (between A & B) that I had covered in a high profile journal in the field a few years before without mentioning. What made the case neat was that the other scholar worked with the archived papers of B, whereas I had worked with A. (Turns out A & B both kept copies of their own letters. Oh the vanity of academics!)

Because I was on friendly terms with the other scholar (cf. clubbiness), I wrote the other scholar that I was disappointed my piece was not cited. That passive aggressive remark was left unanswered. As the weeks past, I did wonder whether I should write the editor of the handbook and kvetch. But because I had missed deadline after deadline for that very same handbook -- recall I said things are a bit clubby in philosophy -- and then my hasty draft  (on a different topic than the correspondence between A&B) was rejected as inadequate (not entirely unfairly), I decided that I would probably regret pursuing this further. I console myself with the thought that the handbook paper is cited only by its author so far. Undoubtedly, I would be greatly pleased if a book-reviewer pointed out the author's oversight some day.

I was surprised the episode, and in particular the lack of acknowledgment after I noted the omission, stung me so badly; and not for the first time I reflected on the fragility of my professional ego. When Tremain's piece (quoted above) reminded me of my own episode, I tried reading Callard's famous essay ("Is Plagiarism all wrong?") as therapy; but that failed because her first key move, "many of us are prepared to debate the fine points of questions such as “Under what circumstances it is okay to torture someone?”, but only against a background of unquestioned agreement that representing other peoples’ ideas or phrasings as your own is, always and forever, evil" reminded me a bit of one my own thoughts,: "academics tend to treat sins against the profession/discipline far worse than society treats a whole range of awful crimes." When I went back to my essay to make this very point, I was confronted with the fact that the thought I happily attributed to myself wasn't even original with me (I cite a "journalist" as a source).

It is by no means original to recognize that the credit economy of philosophy, and any of the intellectual disciplines, functions, in addition to multiple epistemic roles, as a mechanism to facilitate career advancement and the distribution of jobs, prestige, and even research programs. (Go read Liam Kofi Bright and his co-authors.) And given the immense (and narrow) prestige hierarchy of philosophy, it is predictable that patterns of citation exclusion will impact the most vulnerable colleagues most along many dimensions.

So, there is really no ground for optimism in thinking that the profession, or those like ours, is especially good at scorekeeping for those who may need such accuracy most. (That's in fact compatible with the idea that the scorekeeping is reasonably decent for epistemic purposes.) If the victims of such patterns of exclusion are denied standing to claim their due, there is really no reason to expect change for the better. It is not my task to judge all the particular accusations in Tremain's piece (if only because she is critical of some of my friends as she has been critical of me in the past); but I hope this post helps amplify the structural inequities she diagnoses. 

I have long been pleased by the following thought from The Quran: "Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." (13:11) I don't think this passage is an instance of victim-blaming (even if it can be abused in that fashion). Rather, it diagnoses that in  bad circumstances collective action (by a people) is needed. As many reformers have noted, we can't eliminate structural injustice merely by doing better individually. If it is too much to expect individuals to do better at scorekeeping given the incentive structure of the status quo, then it is long overdue we collectively change how we organize such scorekeeping or the rules of the game. I am open to suggestions.